Friday, February 12, 2016

Budgeting The Birds

Silently, I walk through the grasses. Thinking. And thinking.  I began this quest 5 years ago with a Manakin.  This challenge grew into something bigger than me and so began the expedition of the heart and mind.  A newbie.  Everything fresh.  Everything strange. 

Rock Wren
Trapped by my own faults, I am forced to take these personal local courses over and over again.  No real challenges other than the one at home.  Freeing myself of student loan debt.  Cursed.  Stupid.  Debt. I absolutely hate it. Education is important, but so is my lifetime sanity:)  I'm so close to having my total freedom back. I can't help but think of all the other "newer" students with this financial weight that will follow them for decades into the future. 

Cactus Wren
The Cactus Wren rattles away.  He is mischievous as he calls to his partner after finding a patch of food.  She responds and follows him into the prickly shrubs chasing off the House Sparrows.

I was doing my annual survey of the Cactus Wrens around their various locations. BUT, I wanted something juicy and challenging.  So I made some side treks to make it all happen.  They were million dollar birds for cheep:)

Brown birds.  Lots and lots of brown birds fascinate me.  A flock of Brewer's Blackbirds hang near a bush.  One flies into the shadows of a larger Ocotillo. 

Brewer's Sparrow
In a way, I'm no longer that kid who is asking for help anymore.  I'm now helping out others and it feels good. It feeds the teacher part inside of me.  A snowbird with binos asks me at the Desert Museum why our Cardinals are black.  My response, "Ahhh, how exciting!  You've found a Phainopepla guarding his patch of desert mistletoe!"  She's now discovered a new Sonoran desert bird and plant species.  

We play of course.  Crowds are shy around the Desert Museum's new and awesome Vulture Culture. They have a Black and Turkey Vulture on display there. Micheal is a sport and has fun. Once adults see us goofing around and laughing, they do the same. It's funny how humans are pack animals.  What's socially acceptable?  And what's not?  When it comes to learning, I think we should all have fun. 

Micheal makes a convincing Turkey Vulture but strangely he doesn't like leftovers
As we have fun and enjoy the outdoors, I am careful not to let the birds take over unless they are doing something really cool:) But I continue my annual studies and record data for nesting Cactus Wrens, Barn Owls as well as keep tabs on the many wintering grassland species.  I keep my distances.  And I keep my reports secret. 

Everything I have done; I have done my myself. That doesn't mean I've done it alone, quite the contrary. There have been countless people who I would call "teachers". Without their guidance and training, I wouldn't be where I am now. I refer, of course, to my own planning and studies with others.  Currently, I am researching the Spotted Dove.  Recently through my work with California birders, I found out that there is a healthy population of Spotted Doves on Catalina Island.  Before they could only be found in a nasty neighborhood of LA which birders have said is NOT ideal for birding. So I like safe and scenic. It should be an easy find. And to be honest, it should be a wonderful vacation. So in a month, we leave for Avalon and I can't wait to continue my work on the Pacific Ocean.  

No educational institution taught me how to speak Spanish or be a teacher or be a birder. For the first two titles, they certainly charged money for it.  Lots and lots of money.  Degrees are no more than pieces of paper.  And in the end, it means absolutely nothing.  It's what you bring to the table.  For my students, I tell them to take control of their education.  A degree in Spanish means nothing if you don't speak Spanish.  LIVE in a Spanish speaking country.  Theories and books won't make you a teacher.  You are born one or not.  So volunteer and work with people for EXPERIENCE.  

First spot.
The same is true in the birding world. The true test of the Arizona birder's ID course falls upon the sparrows, flycatchers, longspurs and pipits. Birding can be as simple as a Cardinal or as difficult as a Sprague's Pipit.  Last year, I went with my friends to find a Sprague's Pipit.  We saw it, but someone from outside my group called out the ID before I could do the ID myself.  All I had to do was look at the bird and count it.  I wanted to EARN that bird.  

I wish this one has turned out better but I was excited seeing the bird. Next time I will be much more relaxed.
On a recent trek out to the Santa Cruz Flats, I helped another birder get his nemesis Sprague's Pipit.  I gave him the field marks and together we walked the path.  We counted many American Pipits and Mountain Plovers in the fields, but it was the solitary bird that held my interest. No bobbing.  Just mousing around the grasses.  Behavior. 

My first spot
Then a ray of light hit the pipit-looking bird and revealed bright pink legs. Field marks. We got our poor ID pictures for evidence, but it was an amazing experience to observe a bird without the fear of other birder parties flushing this secretive pipit into a further field. Our Sprague's Pipit casually walked from one field into the next, crossing the road with it's very large feet.

Brown birds are as cool as the ones with color. Tricky to separate from the numerous American Pipits.  BUT solitary from the flocks of AMPI, streaky back, pink legs, NO bobbing tail but it did bob the head back and forth; overall lighter in color with light streaking on the front.  It can be difficult.
 Distance was important.  We were close enough with our binos yet far enough away to not disturb the bird. And that's what I remembered from our first observation as it was an issue. At least for me. One group would get too close and flush the bird into another field much further away. While I may have had my lifer Sprague's Pipit last year, I felt for the first time that I EARNED my bird. It's a pretty special feeling.  But even better?  Helping someone find their nemesis bird while enjoying wonderful observations of a naturally very secretive bird in the field. 

Cattle "helping us" find/flush our lonspurs:)
The same cannot be said about the McCown's Longspur.  Generally, longspurs are one of the most difficult birds to photograph. This was like a homework assignment I kept putting off. Grassland birds are my favorites, but they sure do require patience and focus. 

While it wasn't planned, I met up with another birder who had been there for an hour trying to locate the longspurs.  We dealt with extreme wind and dust.  Other birders were there and it was interesting to watch the various individuals.  Some wanted the "gimme" lifer but didn't help at all with the search.  Others simply gave up and left.  But if you give yourself up completely to the moment, anything is possible.  Forget about home, forget about work, forget about the sunset:)  Just be in the moment.  Become the flock. Forget the stinging dust. The frigid wind. And the glaring sun.  Just focus on the energy that is "the flock". My watering eyes did hurt after the observations (which was then followed by a headache), but it was worth the intense search.

McCown's Longspurs-overall a rather dull bird.  For Arizona birders, this is a Master's level bird.
Within a half hour, I was able to help my friend lock on to these very difficult birds.  They were mixed into a flock of several hundred Horned Larks and Lark Buntings.  And there were just two of them!  And they were small.  Brown birds at their very best!

Random Slider Turtle photo

While none of this is easy work; it has become a simpler task. Understanding a simple word like "warbler" or "longspur" will usually imply certain behaviors and often involve a headache later on:) After an hour of cracked dry lips, sore eyes and being all covered in dust, it was time to go home. The mission complete. It was exciting.  The way I imagine a final exam to be in the field studies of AZ Ornithology.  I heard one birder say, "It's what separates the boys from the men." And I'm guessing the girls from women? The birds from the birders?:) I'll just restate it in my own geeky way, "I passed this Jedi test."  

Renee, a creative and funny soul who loved Star Trek as much as I do.
I am constantly reminded that life is not a given.  It should not be taken for granted, ever.  This past week, I received my first check ever for guiding a bird tour and it was VERY nice.  But I also lost a friend.  She was someone who I loved visiting with every year at our Thanksgiving dinners. Renee Sampson, you are loved and will be missed. 

Chestnut-collared Longspurs in Willcox, AZ
I'll be back in the grasslands again thinking some more while helping Tucson Audubon save our declining populations of Chestnut-collared Longspurs.  Once, the McCown's Longspurs were commonly found in small numbers in Southern Arizona.  Today, they are extremely rare to find around their former habitats.  This could also happen to our Chestnut-collared Longspurs if we are not careful.  What's bigger than any of us?  Saving our planet. 

Meanwhile our Jaguar roams the Santa Rita mountain range. Our secret was released by National Geographic just a couple weeks ago.  Hopefully with our combined efforts from all the conservation groups, we will help bring once common wildlife back into our area.  The Jaguar is a wonderful example of what could be once again if we are not reckless.  

At the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge with Bruce Berman
As you can see, even though I have financial matters to consider now, Arizona is a GREAT place to be broke.  For a birder:) Until next time.....


  1. You are a poet and a teacher on your way to becoming a Park Ranger. But don't quit your day job before paying off those student loans. I speak from experience. I so admire your dedication and passion. So many LBJs. ;)

    1. I can't wait for the day to happen Gaelyn. One day. For now, I must stick to the day job. I want to be debt free!!!:) Hope you are having a fun weekend! Thanks for the kinds words:)

  2. Hola Chris.. Que bonitos pajarillos y muy chulo (cool) el sitio.. Que tengas un feliz San Valentín..


  3. Hi Chris, your post gave me some great insight about your personal journey as a birder and how you approach things. I am at the opposite end of the spectrum and would fall into the slacker category as a birder but it's all good as long a we're enjoying ourselves!

    1. Larry, it's all good:) The important part is that we all enjoy the birds. That is the best part about this journey:)

  4. A wonderful post and thought-provoking post Chris - your passion for birding shines through so much. Hope it won't be too much longer before you pay off your student debts. Feel so sorry for youngsters these days being saddled with student loans especially since the fees over here have increased so much :(

  5. First, the jaguar...he has inspired me so much since I fist heard about him! I have worried about him, and have felt he is a special Treasure. It has meant so much to me that he is here.

    Secondly, you are so right about degrees and student loans, and all that. Yes, a degree is important, and yet by itself it is nothing, as you so aptly stated. I am largely self-educated and yet feel I have more knowledge about a plethora of things than many college graduates. I can't stress enough that travel, life experience, and reading can mean even more than a college education...and except for some of the travel, is way cheaper! :-) I am happy for you for all you have accomplished, fluent in your chosen second language, turning it into a career, helping and teaching others, sharing your birding in beautiful ways. It is all priceless!!!!


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